From The Des Moines Register:
Woodbury County’s medical examiner had the right to notify state regulators of his suspicions that a local surgeon’s mistakes contributed to three patient deaths, a federal judge ruled this week.
Judge Linda Reade threw out a libel lawsuit filed last year by the surgeon, Dr. Ralph Reeder, against the longtime medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Carroll.
State medical regulators had worried that the lawsuit would discourage other doctors from reporting concerns about their colleagues’ possible malpractice.
The Iowa Board of Medicine, which licenses physicians, charged Reeder with incompetence in 2008, then withdrew the charges for lack of evidence. Reeder denied the allegations. He sued Carroll after learning that the licensing board’s investigation had been sparked by a 2004 letter from the medical examiner. Carroll, who performed autopsies on two of the three patients, suggested in the letter that the surgeon’s spinal operations contributed to the deaths.
Reeder said in his lawsuit that he spent more than $200,000 defending himself against false allegations that damaged his reputation in the Sioux City area. He contended Carroll wrote the letter out of spite, partly because Reeder was a co-owner of a small South Dakota hospital that the medical examiner believed was unfairly drawing business away from Sioux City hospitals.
Chief U.S. District Judge Linda Reade dismissed Reeder’s lawsuit Tuesday. She noted that physicians are required to tell regulators if they believe a colleague has committed malpractice. State law says people who file such reports “shall not be civilly liable as a result of filing a report with the board, so long as such report is not made with malice,” she wrote.
Mark Bowden, the medical board’s executive director, said such lawsuits crop up from time to time. They always raise fears that health professionals will hesitate to tell regulators about suspected malpractice. “This decision hopefully will reduce the chilling effect,” he said.
Reeder’s lawyer, Charles Patterson, said he hadn’t decided whether to appeal the decision. He said the surgeon is an excellent doctor whose work had never been questioned before. “He is really, in every sense of the word, a victim of circumstances he couldn’t control,” Patterson said.
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